Tartan Day 2021

“Nowhere beats the heart so kindly as beneath the tartan plaid!”

William Edmondstoune Aytoun

It’s fair to say that just hearing the word tartan conjures up the image of kilts and castles and misty Scottish glens, but did you know that this woven fabric, whose origins extend far back into history, is the only type of cloth to have a special date in the world calendar to honour its Scottish roots?

Tartan is not just a piece of fabric – this style of weaving of horizontal and vertical bands of colour in varying widths has come to be seen as a significant symbol of Scotland’s national identity exemplifying dignity and kinship. For this reason, Tartan Day is now celebrated annually on 6th April – a date which corresponds with the signing of The Declaration of Arbroath, in 1320. The Declaration was drawn up at Arbroath Abbey endorsed by the seals of 48 Scottish nobles under Robert I, including Walter the 6th High Steward of Scotland, father to the builder of Dundonald Castle, Robert II. It was addressed to Pope John XXII and its purpose was to elicit the Pope’s blessing on the re-assertion of Scotland’s right as an independent state – furthering the right to defend itself as a nation, after the First War of Independence.

It was in Nova Scotia in 1987 that the first Tartan Day was established after its Federation of Scottish Clans put it forward for consideration as a national day. The purpose being to celebrate the contributions which Scots had made to the establishment of these diaspora communities outside Scotland itself. Now every territory and province in Canada has their own tartan.

This idea transferred to the US as events began to take place up and down the country, but it became an officially recognised part of the nation’s calendar after US Senate Resolution 155 on 20th March 1998 stated:

“April 6th has special significance for all Americans and especially Americans of Scottish descent because the Declaration of Arbroath – the Scottish Declaration of Independence signed on 6th April 1320 – the American Declaration of Independence was modelled on that inspirational document.

Within the Official Titles it also stated that the resolution designating April 6 of each year as National Tartan Day would recognise the outstanding achievements and contributions made by Scottish Americans to the United States. This passed to the Senate without amendment and was agreed by unanimous consent stating:  

“Whereas this resolution honours the major role that Scottish Americans played in the founding of this Nation, such as the fact that almost half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish descent, the Governors in 9 of the original 13 States were of Scottish ancestry, Scottish Americans successfully helped shape this country in its formative years and guide this Nation through its most troubled times; Whereas this resolution recognises the monumental achievements and invaluable contributions made by Scottish Americans that have led to America’s preeminence in the fields of science, technology, medicine, government, politics, economics, architecture, literature, media, and visual and performing arts;

Whereas this resolution commends the more than 200 organisations throughout the United States that honour Scottish heritage, tradition, and culture, representing the hundreds of thousands of Americans of Scottish descent, residing in every State, who already have made the observance of Tartan Day on April 6 a success; and Whereas these numerous individuals, clans, societies, clubs, and fraternal organisations do not let the great contributions of the Scottish people go unnoticed: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate designates April 6 of each year as “National Tartan Day”.

A fine honour indeed!

Within our shores, the first Tartan Day began in 2004 in Angus, where Arbroath Abbey resides. However, it hasn’t as yet become such a celebration as it is across the Atlantic – where huge organised parades and ceilidhs take place in most US states – with New York Tartan Day Parade, which is held annually on the nearest Saturday to the 6th of April attracting world attention. Well-kent faces, such as Billy Connolly in 2019, are invited to be Parade Grand Master leading the Tartan Day Pipe Band, with representatives of Scot’s Heritage societies from across the US, as the traditional opener of the week-long celebrations. 

“Tartan has transgressed the realms of tradition and has infiltrated the world of politics, royalty and fashion through Jacobite rebellions, royal visits and romanticised runways.”

Scott Schiavone, Fashion Curator/History of Fashion

This being the 650th anniversary of Royal Dundonald Castle, and the start of the 343 year Stewart Dynasty, we thought we might use this important date to take a look at some of the notable aspects about Stewart Tartan – of which belongs Royal Stewart; designed to represent the Royal House of Stewart with its striking scarlet woven bands interspersed with varying widths of yellow, white, black and royal blue – is  by far the best known and used tartan in the world to this day, and has a rather a chequered story all of its own!

It’s earliest known recording shows up in 1800 where the title Royal Stewart was registered in the  collections of William Wilson & Son of Bannockburn – a weaving firm (1765 – 1924) known to have explored and recorded old tartan patterns of the Highlands and islands, and afterwards re-introducing them under names of their choosing.

Royal Stewart tartan was thought to have been used before this however, and at least as far back as having been the tartan worn by the followers of Prince Charles Edward Stewart in the 1745 Jacobite Rising, although evidence of this is sparse. There are several tartans linked with the Prince, and in a portrait of the young prince by William Mosman c.1750, he is depicted wearing a tartan jacket, which as you can see has a strong resemblance to the modern day Royal Stewart pattern. 

Closer to home, Lady Susanna Montgomerie, the Countess of Eglinton, who lived for part of her life in nearby Old Auchans, had six fragments of the Prince’s tartan presented to her by the Prince himself at Holyrood in 1745. She was a prominent Jacobite supporter and is thought to have divided the pieces up between her 7 daughters. They are said to have been cut from a jacket, and we can’t help but wonder if it was from the same jacket the Prince wears in Mosman’s portrait, or that she may well have kept some of these pieces of tartan less than a mile from Dundonald Castle! What we do know however is that the surviving pieces can be dated to the first half of the 18th century, are thought to be the only surviving tartan remnants from this period and can be seen on display at the Culloden Visitor Centre.

It was after this period in Scotland’s history we find that the wearing of tartan became outlawed with The Act of Proscription of 1747 as an attempt to subjugate the Highlands after the Jacobite army defeat at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746 which stated: “No man or boy within that part of Great Briton called Scotland, other than shall be employed as officers and soldiers in his Majesty’s forces, shall on any pretence whatsoever, wear or put on clothes commonly called Highland clothes (that is to say) the plaid, philibeg or little kilt, trowse, shoulder belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belong to the highland garb; and that no tartan or party-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for great coats or for upper coats..”. This meant that being caught wearing even a tiny strip of tartan could elicit a six month prison sentence, or, if found to be wearing tartan a second time, then the offender could expect to be subject to; “transportation to any of his Majesty’s plantations beyond the seas and there to remain for a space of seven years.”

In Australia and New Zealand, Tartan Day has been held annually on 1st July since 1996 to commemorate the repeal of this act which came into being on that day in 1782.

Sadly its thought that with 35 years where the weaving of tartan, mainly comprised of local family enterprise, would have been in effect put on hold, it’s fair to say that some of the ancient dying techniques to develop the exact tone and hue of colour for the wool, and even the patterns themselves would have disappeared forever. It could be said though, that it was largely due to the work of William Wilson & Son who continued weaving tartan during the period of the proscription since their work was exported to the Americas, the West Indies, Europe and the Indian continent, that tartan as we know it survived at all. Furthermore two Welsh brothers, Charles and John Carter re-surfaced and re-invented many of the tartan designs whilst researching the designs and origins of tartan for their books Vestiarium Scoticum (1842) and “The Costume of the Clans(1845) becoming the first ever publications identifying clan tartans. These two brothers changed their names to John Sobieski Stolberg Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart, and claimed to be grandsons of Prince Charles Edward Stewart, even though there is no evidence to support this, but indeed wowed Edinburgh society and were referred to as The Sobieski Stuarts! It’s thought that both Wilson & Son and the Sobieskis, were the main originators of the practice of individualising tartans as a source of Clan identification, and by the late19th century tartan as an indicator of clan identity was firmly established.

It seems that Royal Stewart tartan became popularised by the royal family after George IV, persuaded he was a direct descendent of the House of Stewart, ordered it for his own Highland Dress outfit at George Hunter and Co of Edinburgh, which he wore on his state visit to Scotland in 1822. Royal Stewart was later adopted by Queen Victoria as the official royal tartan, and who can be credited with its enormous surge in demand when she began to wear and dress her children in it. So it seems that tartan, in the space of 70 years, went from being seen as a despicable symbol of rebellion worthy only of imprisonment or transportation, to a must-have high status fashion item!

There are several other tartans attributed to the Stewarts such as:

Stewart Hunting – designed with a dark green background replacing the red,which may well have been used as a form of camouflage whilst hunting. It is worn by Queen Elizabeth II when she’s off-duty.

Stewart Old: Where shades of green are also used instead of red. Worn by Queen Elizabeth II when she’s at Balmoral and favoured by her mother – originally belonging to the Stewarts of the Western Isles.

Stewart Dress: the dress version of Royal Stewart with the larger red squares replaced by white.

Stewart Victoria: similar to the Stewart Dress tartan but has extra red lines added. Favoured by Queen Victoria.

Each sept of the clan Stewart have their own tartan such as Stewart of Appin whose tartan has bands of blue and green replacing the Royal Stewart Red.

We don’t know if tartan was worn at Dundonald Castle in it’s heyday but we can assume that this type of woven cloth would have been seen there aplenty for blankets and clothing, with the work of the 14th century weaver being an essential component to the daily lives of all who lived and worked there.

Further Information:

Find out more about The Declaration of Arbroath : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bZYWJBpMhQ&t=2s

Watch Tartan Day Parade NYC 2019, as well as highlights from Tartan Day Canada and Australia, with NYC Mounted Police Unit parade, the Grand Marshall Banner, Scottish Parliament representatives, St Andrews Society of NY, New York Caledonian Club Pipe Band, Clan Campbell, Bruce, Boyd, Colquhoun, Bell, Buchanan, Wallace, MacNeil et al, University of Stirling, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen, Strathclyde and Edinburgh, Oban High School Pipe Band, Long Island Shetland Sheepdog Rescue etc:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L80cSPrc0nw

The records of William Wilson & Son are unique in the field of tartan research with an estimated ten thousand letters, legal documents, and books of recorded patterns and samples of cloth which have survived. These are in the care of the National Library of Scotland, the Royal Museum of Scotland and the Scottish Tartans Society




https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcYyY6ZzgCg: lecture in Tartan by Scott Schiavone, Fashion Curator/History of Fashion.






Cover Image by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

Charles Edward Stewart by William Mosman c. 1750 https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/3866/0/prince-charles-edward-stuart-1720-1788-eldest-son-prince-james-francis-edward-stuart?overlay=download. By kind permission of National Galleries of Scotland.

Stewart Tartan Sample: Wikicomons